State-level elections marked by unprecedented stability

In the midst of a historic election that has upended the balance of power in Washington, final results in state-level contests show a different kind of history being made: Unprecedented stability.

Voters in battlegrounds across the country opted to maintain state legislative majorities in all but one state on Tuesday. Only two legislative chambers — the New Hampshire state House and Senate — will have a new majority when they meet in January, after Republicans toppled Democratic incumbents.

Coupled with the Virginia state Senate, which Democrats won in 2019, and the Alaska state House, where Republicans appear poised to win a controlling majority after two years of coalition control, just four legislative chambers changed hands across a two-year election cycle.

That is the lowest number of chambers to change hands in one cycle since 1944, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“This appears to be a remarkably status quo election in the U.S. states,” wrote Tim Storey, NCSL’s executive director, and Wendy Underhill, the group’s top elections analyst. “After all the furor, campaign spending, and [get-out-the-vote] efforts, the political landscape has barely budged.”

Both Democrats and Republicans poured hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to flip control of state legislative chambers, a priority made all the more crucial by the impending redistricting cycle that is set to kick off in January. 

The Republican State Leadership Committee, a group dedicated to electing GOP candidates in state-level races, estimated that Democratic candidates and their outside groups raised and spent half a billion dollars on legislative races — and Republican spending is likely to approach the same levels.

But both parties largely held the line in key battlegrounds. Republicans maintained control in states like Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania, top redistricting targets that send large delegations to Washington. Democrats were forced to defend fewer seats, though they held most of their territory in closely-divided states like Colorado and Delaware.

Dozens of races do not yet have a clear winner, as local election administrators tally the remaining votes. Late counts could give Democrats a chance to reclaim control in Arizona, where a total of eleven races remain undecided, though they would have to reverse early returns that show Republicans leading.

Strategists who closely follow legislative races were blown away by the amount of money that flowed into what are usually low-budget contests. In Texas, a state where Democrats poured millions into outside spending, a dozen Republican incumbents raised more than $1 million each — in just the last month of the campaign.

In North Carolina, Democrats and Republicans combined to spend about $35 million on television advertising for state House and Senate races between June and November. In Arizona, one state senator who raised about $28,000 for his first campaign a decade ago won a race that drew more than $1 million in spending this year. 

“In North Carolina, folks were ready. They knew it was going to be a brawl,” said Jim Blaine, a GOP strategist with close ties to state Senate Republicans. “There are some people who came to play this year, on both sides.”

Once the new legislators are sworn in come January, the battle over district boundary lines begins. Republicans will control the ability to draw 175 of the 435 districts represented in Congress, about two dozen fewer than they controlled a decade ago. Democrats will control the process in states that send 47 members to Washington, down from 51 seats a decade ago.

Independent or bipartisan commissions have been the big winners over the last decade, as more states farm out the redistricting process to those who do not serve in legislatures. This cycle, 161 total House districts will be drawn by those commissions across about a dozen states. 

The two parties will share control of the redistricting process in states that send 45 members to Congress. Another seven states send only one at-large member to the House.

Both Democrats and Republicans have created more formal structures to take on and guide their side’s redistricting strategy this year. The Republican effort is being overseen by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R); the Democratic side is managed by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

The two sides say they are prepared for war, no matter the legislative terrain.

“We’re paying attention to redistricting this time around and aren’t going to let [Republicans] get away with another decade of rigged districts,” said Christina Polizzi, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “This will not be a repeat and we are going to fight tooth and nail for fair maps.”

Tags 2020 election Eric Holder Redistricting State legislatures

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